Thursday, November 17, 2016

Take up arms and destroy or be smitten against the wall: Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon

            I'm working on several exciting projects.  My paper on the Nephite experience in battle is about to be published with The Interpreter. I signed a contract to produce a book on decisive battles in Chinese history, and I'm working on a new paper on preemptive war.  Of course I've written about this before, but I've noticed several more verses where it was mentioned. As I considered the matter I found several more, and given my additional research and though on the topic I thought it was worth organzing into a paper that I think will make an extremely meaningful contribution to the subject. I still have to make the bibliography, and tinker with a few things here and there, but overall I think its ready to submit to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.  This is the section that summarizes the verses I analyze:

            The verses will be analyzed in more detail below and only summarized briefly here. In the Book of Omni the Nephites fled the Land of Nephi. A few verses later and within a short space of time, and then in greater detail in Zeniff’s record, the Nephites sent scouts to spy on the Lamanites, that they might “come upon and destroy them” (Mosiah 9:1).  The Nephites had already committed to launch a sneak attack, and they were looking for the best location. Zeniff changed his mind after seeing what was good in the Lamanites, but with the benefit of hindsight he also admitted his decisions were overzealous and naïve. The entire account suggests a need to reassess his description of the other Nephite commander as blood thirsty and austere, and that the offensive strategy had merits. 

             Shortly later Ammon recorded, using almost the same words as Zeniff, that the Nephites wanted to “take up arms” and destroy the Lamanites instead of send missionaries to them (Alma 26:25).  This fabulous success of his missionary work is commonly cited as repudiation of the supposedly war mongering tendencies.[1] But various unexamined items that undermine this interpretation include the martial skills used by Ammon, the need for the new Lamanite king to legitimize his rule, the innocent victims in the city of Noah, and the soldiers who died retrieving them suggest unexamined consequences of Ammon’s actions and an under appreciation of Nephite offensive plans.  Defenders of preemptive war and national security practitioners most commonly cite Moroni’s preemptive attack in support of preemptive war.[2] Though there are strong elements in Moroni’s past that support such behavior and even stronger negative consequences of this policy that remain unexamined. While the text says that Moroni was making plans to secure the Nephites, a careful look at his behavior suggests that Moroni’s aggressive tactics contributed significantly to the start of the last phase of the war. The arguments from the people speaking in towers for example (Alma 48:1), would have been much more effective as only slightly more sinister variations of what actually happened or was about to happen. This includes items such as the possible militarization of the vote (Alma 46:21), and the seizure of lands during what was nominally a time of peace, though it might be termed a lull in one long war (Alma 50:7).  Amalickiah would have presented the proposed action to the Lamanite king in the starkest terms. Then it when it actually happened and a flood of Lamanite refugees were entering Lamanite lands, Amalickiah’s position would have been strengthened a great deal.

            The next examples are recorded in Helaman 1.  As discussed above, the same chapter contains both the dangers against and motivation for using preemptive war.  The Nephites faced a serious challenge to leadership and executed somebody for being “about” flatter the people.  But a few verses later the Lamanites, with both political and military positions filled by dissenters, the Lamanites capture Zarahemla and smite the Nephite chief judge against the wall. These verses provide an example of how the distinction between unrighteous and aggressive preventive wars and increasingly justified preemptive wars is incredibly thin, and becomes thinner with the rise of modern technology.

The next two verses are the most cited against offensive warfare.[3] The chief captain Gidgiddoni said “the Lord forbid” in response to offensive action (3 Nephi 3:21). And Mormon was supposedly so disgusted with the Nephites desire for offensive warfare that he resigned his command (Mormon 3:11).  Yet, Gidgiddoni’s command is likely a strategic observation more than command from the Lord. He likely witnessed disastrous Nephite attempts to root out the robbers before (Helaman 11:25-28), and he used offensive actions as part of an overall defensive posture to maneuver and “cut off” the robbers (3 Nephi 4: 24, 26). Mormon moreover, attacked the Nephites bloodlust, vengeance and false oaths and not their strategic decisions (Mormon 3:9-10, 14).  Viewing the Nephites outside of the lens of Mormon’s spiritual denunciations a person sees that the Nephite soldiers actually performed with great skill and élan.  A few verses after their disastrous offensive they actually ended up at the same place as they started.  Faced with endemic warfare against a stronger enemy, absent the Nephite’s blood lust, this was actually their most justified preemptive action. Of course, none of this excuses their rape and cannibalism, but it does suggest we can assess the effectiveness of their strategy apart from their apostasy.

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[1] Joshua Madsen, “A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015.) 24. “The mission of Ammon and his brothers to the Lamanites, specifically in defiance of Nephite cultural stereotypes, ultimately demonstrates that acts of love and service can break through false cultural narratives, unite kingdoms, and converts thousand to Christianity where violence could not…In the end, Nephite just wars did not bring peace, whereas those like Ammon who rejected their culture’s political narratives and hatred did.” 
[2] Mark Henshaw, Valerie Hudson et. Al. “War and the Gospel: Perspectives from Latter day Saint National Security Practitioners,” Square Two, v.2 no.2 (Summer 2009.)
[3] Jeffrey Johanson, “Wars of Preemption Wars of Revenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol.35, no.3 (Fall 202), 244-247. content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N03_244.pdf

Sunday, November 6, 2016

My Research on Preemptive War in Cambridge University Press

I'm working on what I hope will be a new journal article on preemptive war. It is coming along nicely and I hope to post a preview here soon. I came across a rather great book called, The Ethics of Preventive War. Its a collected volume from Cambridge University Press. I was rather excited to come across this book because its a frank, calm, and rational discussion about the topic, which is rather lacking. In fact, during my research I found a quote that talks about the "demonic hatred" that many have for the practice. (As a frequent object of that hatred I can relate.)   But here is an author, Chris Brown, who discusses the topic using language very similar to mine: 

[W]hat is different today is the combination of speed and destructiveness; in the Caroline case a decision had to be taken very quickly by the man on the spot, but although the volunteers carried by the Caroline would have been a nuisance had they landed on the Canadian side of the river, they did not pose an existential threat to large numbers of civilians, or to the colony Britain itself. The stakes today are potentially a great deal higher. 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 people and could easily have killed more; the use of some form of WMD could push the death toll much higher, and there is no reason to think that potential terrorists would be loath to cause such mayhem. The central point is that although "instant, overwhelming....[leaving] no time for deliberation" sound like absolute criteria they are in fact, and must be, relative terms- a second was, in practice, a meaningless unit of time in 1839, but in 2007, the average laptop can carry out a billion or more "instructions per second." (34)

Although the new world in which we have to live is not quite as different from the old as it might, at first sight, seem to be, nonetheless there are organizations (state and non-state) in the world whose ideological foundations make them difficult to deter, and whose potential capacity to deliver serious damage to the infrastructure of industrial societies and to their populations make them difficult to ignore. It does seem plausible that some kind of rethinking of the notion of preemption is required... (36)

I wrote the following back in 2009. In fact, this was one of the ideas I wanted to explore, which made me start the blog in the first place.   It turned out to be the basis for my first presentation in the Mormon world and became part of a publication of which I'm rather proud.  Notice how I use follow the author's point about how technology and the threat of terrorists armed with WMDs to meet the justification for preemptive war:

Today battlefields stretch over many miles. The personal weapon of an infantrymen, the M-16, has an effective range of roughly a third of a mile. Jet fighters, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles can launch from one location and strike 6,000 miles away. And Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles can truly live up to their name and strike from continents away.

World wide airline and naval travel easily transport dangerous people and material. The Nephites must have been surprised at how narrow their strip of wilderness could be at times, our protection is just as thin if we do not set proper guards (Hel 1:18) or be "up and doing" in defense of our liberty(Alma 60:24).

During the Cold War we could nominally count on the international order to restrain the actions of our enemy. But even this existence led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Krushchev threatening to "swat America's ass" with the weapons he inserted there. Now we face regimes that explicitly reject that world order, support terrorism as an arm of foreign policy, and seek the most devastating weapons known to man.

The threat is just as real and apparent as the Lamanites marching on Zarahemla. Yet if we wait for the launch of nuclear missiles, or a terrorist attack using the same, we will be lamenting the desolation of Ammonihah instead. Arguing for a neo isolationist foreign policy based on The Book of Mormon ignores the strategic realities that both nations faced as a result of geography and technology. The nature of modern technology, the connection of rogue regimes with terrorist organizations, the precedent re enforced by 9/11, and the shrinking world of globalization demand that pursue an "offensive defensive" like the Nephites of old.

Thanks for reading! Who do you think said it better?  

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